Our series on the best Clipper to wear each number continues through May; just add 30 to the date to keep track of where we are.
Today, we honor Swen Nater, the best Clipper to wear no. 31, and whose real-life story is even more impressive than the career he had with the Buffalo Braves and the San Diego Clippers.
Nater was born in the Netherlands. His parents divorced when he was four, and he stayed with his father while his mother and stepfather moved to the United States with his younger brother. His father later abandoned Nater and his younger sister when he was seven; it took the efforts of family friends in Arizona and a TV show called “It Could Be You” to reunite the two children with their mother in southern California when Nater was nine.
Nater was 6-foot-9 when he started college but had no plans of playing basketball, even after showing out with 34 points and 25 rebounds in the Pizza Hut classic the summer after his senior year of high school. But Cypress College head coach Tom Lubin recruited him to the team and taught him how to shoot a hook shot, leading Nater to believe he had a future in the sport. Nater was a community college All-American in his second year, which caught the attention of John Wooden and earned Nater a transfer to UCLA, where he backed up future Clipper Bill Walton.
As he told the Los Angeles Times, choosing UCLA was a calculated decision to prepare him to eventually play professionally:
“My goal was not college basketball, it was the pros. If my goal was college basketball, I would have gone to another college. I knew I would be a much better pro if I played behind Walton. Everybody has talents, one of mine is accomplishing goals.”
Three years of being Walton’s practice punching bag led to two national titles (Nater had to redshirt the first year) and being drafted in the first round of the 1973 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. Nater chose to go to the ABA instead, where he became an All-Star and earned all-ABA second team in his rookie season. Naturally, he was also ABA Rookie of the Year.
Nater graduated to the NBA in 1976. A year later, he was traded to the Braves. He spent six seasons with the franchise, including the next five in San Diego, where he became a local legend.
Nater averaged 13.5 points and 12 rebounds per game in his Clippers tenure, winning the NBA rebounding crown in 1980. He set a number of franchise records for rebounding, nearly all of which are currently held by DeAndre Jordan, except for defensive rebounds (864) in a single season.
He was incredibly smooth operating out of the low post, his hook shot serving him well. He was also an accomplished poet, often sharing his work with Wooden.
According to Getty, the Clippers retired Nater’s no. 31 jersey in 2004. However, nothing hangs in Staples Center, and plenty of players have worn the number since. Perhaps it was simply a celebration of Nater’s career rather than a jersey retirement.
Regardless of how Nater was officially honored by the Clippers, he was one of the great big men in franchise history. He is easily the best Clipper to wear no. 31.
Apologies go to Brent Barry, who wore no. 31 for the first two and a half years of his career as a Clipper, and who won a Dunk Contest during that time. Perhaps if Barry hadn’t worn his warmups during the dunk contest and you could actually see the no. 31 jersey, he would have earned more credit.